How depressing was the 2008 television year? Let us count the ways. Cop dramas The Shield and The Wire retired their badges. A host of young, ambitious start-ups — Pushing Daisies, Dirty Sexy Money, Eli Stone, Swingtown — all went bust. And former phenomenons Grey’s Anatomy and Heroes betrayed our trust and broke our hearts. But the biggest bummer was what all of these smaller bummers portend. My friends, I regret to inform you that the second golden age of television is over.
Fuzzy on the matter of officially designated TV epochs? A small history lesson. The first golden age of television was…a long time ago. The second golden age kicked off about 10 years ago, when writers started taking advantage of creative freedoms afforded by a medium made new again by cable and increasingly intense competition. David Chase’s The Sopranos was the beginning in 1999. Then came intelligent, provocative series like The West Wing, Gilmore Girls, Six Feet Under, 24, Nip/Tuck, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, Desperate Housewives, and Mad Men. Yes, the art of serialized drama was reborn — as were cutting-edge comedies (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, The Office) and a game-changing new genre: ”reality.” It was a big bang of biz-transforming artistry and novelty, unleashed by a confluence of networks, producers, and audiences all starving for something fresh and distinctive.
But not anymore. There have been harbingers of The End for a while, but the death knell came with the writers’ strike; it demonstrated how tenuous our relationship is to a TV show: How quickly it can disappear! In the strike’s aftermath, viewers became both reluctant to re-engage with the old shows that left them hanging and wary of the new shows that promised unique vision or quirky cool. While J.J. Abrams’ hipster sci-fi series Fringe is attracting just 9 million viewers a week, its time-slot rival The Mentalist, a conspicuously old-fashioned CBS crime procedural, was the No. 1 show the week of Dec. 9, with almost 19 million. And if viewers didn’t abandon dramas with continuing story lines in 2008, they certainly found them less essential. (Prison Break, down 23 percent; Grey’s, down 12 percent; Heroes, down 26 percent.) With demand for edgy entertainment shrinking, so is supply. Media industry volatility and recession economics are pushing TV networks toward the safest, sanest options possible. Sopranos wannabes are out; Bones clones are in. Next season, NBC will fill its weekday 10 p.m. time slots with…a new Jay Leno talk show.
So savor these last two seasons of Lost. Relish the revitalization of Desperate Housewives. And hope against hope that Mad Men, the youngest and smallest of the New Classics, can grow and thrive. And as you do, celebrate the passing of the moment they represent.
TV Death Watch
Canceled shows don’t always stink…and renewed shows sometimes do. Our picks for which deserved their fate.
Dead Or Dying, But Should Be Alive
The Ex List
Dead Or Dying And Should Be Dead
Dirty Sexy Money
My Own Worst Enemy
Do Not Disturb
Alive And Should Be Alive
Alive And Should Be Dead
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Kath & Kim
— Tanner Stransky